Does designing too much and playing too little make Jack a bad designer?

edited January 2016 in Story Games
Something @bendutter said in his introduction post made me wonder: if you design a lot of games but play infrequently, does that, in Ben's words, 'hinder your design competence'? Is there an amount of games, a frequency of playing them, and/or a degree of variety in the games one plays below which one is likely to suffer in terms of design competence and, if so, what can or should one do about this? I confess that design prolixity is a particular failing of mine, but I just can't seem to stop. Should I try to?

Comments

  • Yes yes a thousand times yes.

    To paraphrase Clinton R. Nixon from eight years ago, play all the games. Become an expert player. That's what leads to good design.
  • edited January 2016
    Depends on your goals.

    I get the impression you're having a lot of fun designing, so keep at it, I say. Anything improves with practice, even if you're operating in some weird vacuum.

    If your goal is to improve faster, then I imagine playing more might help.

    I will disagree with Ben that being an expert player leads to good design. Some of the best players I know basically go, "Uh, design, what?" And some great designers out there are pretty mediocre players. Good play and good design do seem like natural bedfellows to me -- I just wouldn't see one as a particularly sure path to the other. I mean, if you've only ever played D&D, then yes, go out and broaden your horizons post haste -- but I know that's not your situation, Leo.

    I don't know what leads fastest to better design. Classes and exercises and tutorials? The right combo of those with play and analysis?

    If your goals have less to do with abstract skill and more to do with knowing/finding/serving an audience, then you might wanna play what your audience has played...
  • I think if you want to design games you really need to play them. Just like a writer needs to read or a composer needs to listen to music.
  • edited January 2016
    I will disagree with Ben that being an expert player leads to good design. Some of the best players I know basically go, "Uh, design, what?" And some great designers out there are pretty mediocre players.
    To rephrase Clinton's quote slightly, I believe he meant expert in the sense that you know a lot about the field from having experienced a lot of games first-hand, not that you are a talented improviser, etc. If you're just excellent at role-playing that does not mean you would be any better at design.

    The point is that playing lots and trying lots of different games makes you better at design because you understand play better.

    (likewise there's no reason being a good player should make you want to design -- play never *has* to lead to design)
  • I wish we had a central textbook of Forge derived learning and experiences.
  • edited January 2016
    Gotcha, Ben! I agree that that's a natural and sensible path.

    Thanks for clarifying "expert"; I probably parsed that incorrectly.

    The real point I should have made is that I am skeptical of the idea that "lots of play" is the most crucial part of the path to improved understanding and design. I don't think that's a safe claim. I think the lessons you learn from play depend greatly on which games you play, how long you play them, who you play with, the eye you take to the rules and proceedings, your own creative and scientific processes, etc.

    Maybe that's just a minor footnote in light of catty_big's request here, but I wanted to slip it in. It'd suck to simply play a million games and then be left going, "Wait, why aren't I an awesome designer now?"
  • edited January 2016
    Is there an amount of games, a frequency of playing them, and/or a degree of variety in the games one plays below which one is likely to suffer in terms of design competence . . . ?
    I would recommend that you target games relevant to your design goals, play them long enough to see how the reward system plays out over multiple cycles, and play with people who represent who you're designing for.

    If you don't have firm goals or audience ideas, then touring what's out there can certainly add tools to your toolkit, which you may then make use of or not depending on what goals you eventually settle on. My recommendations for variety would include highly social and/or creative party games as well as unusual RPGs.

    The bases I'd try to cover would include:
    - one-shot/campaign
    - established setting/improvised setting
    - character teams/separate characters
    - small group/large group
    - stable group/shifting group
    - face-to-face/play-by-post
    - GMful/"just play my guy"
    - GM runs the event/GM lays back
    - lite/crunchy
    - dice or cards used constantly/never
    - minute task resolution/scene resolution
    - rules-focused/fiction-focused
    - competitive/collaborative
    - immersive/removed
    - intense/silly
    - acting/no acting
    - zoomed in/zoomed out
    - pervasive talking rules/not
    - freeform/scripted
    - open-ended/act-structured

    These 20 items represent more than 20 options; each is essentially a spectrum. I think I've learned different things from different points along each of them.

    Is that helpful?
  • edited January 2016
    I agree that it's not a safe claim. It has an element of undeniable truth to it, to a point, but beyond that point the quality or applicability of your design begins to depend more and more on your target audience, your intuition, your subgenre, and even your memories of previous situations. Not all designs break new ground; many retread old ground and aim toward audiences whose tastes and playstyles are already well known.

  • Read other people's games (and read ABOUT other people's games) and play the games you design yourself. Those things are important. Playing other people's games is good, but not essential.
  • Designing without playing (or at least knowing about) other people's games is like doing scientific research without reading research journals: if you don't know about recent research and discoveries, then you won't get the spark of inspiration that might lead to your own breakthrough.
  • you won't get the spark of inspiration that might lead to your own breakthrough.
    Well, you might, but you'll be devastated when you learn we already have a theory of gravity.
  • Just to clarify my own comment:

    I meant simply that the more sub fields of a subject you had familiarity with, the more likely you are to be an expert in that subject.

    Playing (or reading) other games is witnessing the application of someone's design, and being able to deconstruct and recognize the integral parts of a game is helpful (but not essential) toward becoming a subjectively "good" designer.

    You can of course design something your first try and have it be an excellent game, or struggle for ten thousand iterations without ever having played. But, I think a wide bevy of exposure and experience will serve as aid.
  • I don't think the OP is asking if playing lots of games will make you a good designer. The OPs point seems more to the effect of whether playing infrequently will make you a worse designer than you'd be otherwise. I think if you are not playing games that much, it is definitely going to impact your design in a negative way, because you are not dealing with the practical aspects and problems of play as much. It is like when you design a mechanic and it is great on paper, then you actually run the thing and it falls apart because you weren't considering the things that can come up at the table (or it didn't play how you imagined it, so you tweak it). I don't think you necessarily have to play a bunch of different games. But at the very least, if you are not playing the systems you are designing for (whether it is your own system or another), that is going to hurt your design (and it definitely helps to see how other systems do things). I just don't think one can understand what the needs of players and GMs are at the table if your barely playing games yourself. And you are definitely going to have a hard time talking about how to apply your games in live play if you are barely playing them.
  • edited January 2016
    Agreed on those points, Brendan.

    I think some of that is inherently covered by playtesting, which Catty didn't ask about, so I assume he's at least doing that. But maybe I shouldn't assume!
  • Designing without playing (or at least knowing about) other people's games is like doing scientific research without reading research journals: if you don't know about recent research and discoveries, then you won't get the spark of inspiration that might lead to your own breakthrough.
    I would say that, even moreso, it's also analogous to writing massive, detailed hypotheses about science stuff without actually doing the scientific experiments! It's not just about being exposed to other peoples' ideas; there is a real, tangible benefit to being immersed in a culture of play, no matter what you're playing. Designing games relies on both theoretical and practical knowledge of gameplay.

    Like, I find it kinda funny that there's folks out there who hold the notion that you could design decent games without an active gameplay experience, because this is literally the only niche of tabletop gaming where that would fly. I don't think you would find a single boardgame afficianado who agreed with the idea that their favorite boardgame designer could successfully design games without regularly playing boardgames.
  • Thanks for your comments guys. Guess it looks like I just tossed in a grenade and promptly scarpered, but I've been doing chores all day. There's a lot of stuff there, will reply in detail tomorrow.
  • I find that as I've become a more experienced game designer, I am increasingly able to design games that work well and are fun on the first playthrough. These are games that aren't revolutionary in any way, but combine techniques that I know work and I can reliably imagine how they will synergize at the table.

    Then I have crazy ideas that are unlike techniques I've used before, and in those cases playtesting is essential, of course. Often it doesn't work the way I intended, but sometimes playtesting will reveal other neat stuff that I couldn't figure out on my own.

    Finally, reading and playing other people's games does a lot to give me inspiration, which fuels me to keep going. I often play a game and think "Ooh, I want to make a game about this!" (because I rarely find games that I don't think I could do better myself. Not because I'm the world's greatest designer, but because I make games just the way I like them).
  • My advice is to approach play like a carrion-eating bird approaches roadkill - delight in everything you can get your talons on with an open mind and open heart. There are powerful design lessons in every game of every type, as well as literature, visual art, the hard sciences, everywhere. I think it is important to experience and process these things with others, all kinds of others, through play and conversation.

    I know brilliant game designers who don't play much, or only play with a tight-knit circle of friends, but they are the exception.
  • At first I was eager to say "yes, play all you can!" but then I thought of how my own experience went. From all the games I've readed in the Forge and in SG, I think I have only actually played Kingdom... and a bit hacked version of 3:16. The rest of them all, I played heavily hacked versions or made a trad design and fitted mechanics from every other game I found interesting.

    Did that made me a better designer? Well, it's as Simon wrote above, it's quite clear now that my designs are more enjoyable now than they were a few years ago. Now I've got an idea of how making a certain kind of design fun, but I can't certainly make the same with every genre of game. That's because I focused on things I like but that my group of players would also like to play.

    It works for me, I have fun this way but I wouldn't consider myself a professional game designer. For that I should be able, I think, to take on anything and turn it into an enjoyable/profitable game. And I reckon that would be only accomplishable by analyzing other people's games and my own as a read, in abstract and in play to find out what they generate in the players and how.

    But that's not my goal, I just want to design a particular kind of games in a particular way, so I just focus on what I like and that's it. I do research as much as I can and playtest, as well as discuss ideas here and with some friends. That certainly helps a lot. There are however a few concepts and mechanics I've found that can only be understood when played as they sound terribly complex or silly when explained.
  • Its an issue thats been bugging me as well. Mostly because its next to impossible for me to actually get a game group together for a game at the moment.

    I tend to go through periods where I play a lot and others when I hardly play at all - well, ok, mostly referee, I'm a nightmare to have as a player because having refereed for around 38 years I can usually work out the entire structure of the adventure within the first ten minutes and have already established how to complete the whole thing in ten more, which for some reason other referees don't usually appreciate. I do the same with films and TV shows (some of us might conclude people write to a common formula...). Bad habit.

    Thats a bit of a round about way to my point - its not always necessary to be playing but it helps to have played in the past - a lot. What playing still does is it can keep you fresh and up to date. I have always noticed that after one of my not playing much phases that I realise I have got a bit out of date on interesting things that have been happening in game design. Having a finger on the pulse can be a good thing (at least you know if you are being innovative and maybe taking a risk or two or firmly in peoples comfort zone even though you thought you were being innovative and risky). Of course you can get much of that from simply reading new rpgs. There is a point where you have played so much you can a good feel for how a game will play just from reading it.

    Here is the big issue though - the one game you probably should not assume you can get a good feel for how it will play from past experience is your own. We can all get creative blind spots with our own projects and its all too easy to over-own them, to become a bit myopic about your own games possible weaknesses. That can actually be true of any creative project. Other people playing your game (and giving you feedback or you watching them play) is more important than you playing other peoples games.
  • My advice is to approach play like a carrion-eating bird approaches roadkill - delight in everything you can get your talons on with an open mind and open heart. There are powerful design lessons in every game of every type, as well as literature, visual art, the hard sciences, everywhere. I think it is important to experience and process these things with others, all kinds of others, through play and conversation.

    I know brilliant game designers who don't play much, or only play with a tight-knit circle of friends, but they are the exception.
    To add to this: no matter what the game is, I trust that you, a designer, have a sharp enough mind to find immense value in the play experience, and there's really no way to replicate that shared gaming experience.
  • There are many famous musicians - Sting and Thom Yorke among them - who refuse to listen to other peoples' music while they are composing a piece or an album.

    I dig that. Firstly, it's a guard against subconscious crossover, and something about conceptual purity, maybe even artistic ego^H^H^Hpride. But it's also about separating your "intake" phases from your "output" phases. Whole different kind of attention, energy, etc. Works for me.

  • I'd imagine that if you're playing D&D all day long while you are designing a new game, your new game will always, in some way, be a reaction to D&D (whether good or bad).

    It doesn't mean that your game will be more unique or creative if you've avoided playing other people's games, however,in general, throughout your life... that's a different kettle of fish!
  • I would say that if the designer has already played a game, then the harm is done. That person will then create game mechanics and philosophy similar to that, even if they aren't supporting the designer's purpose of the game.

    Then yes, play as many games as you can, but play them while designing. The same goes with writing, drawing, making movies, or stuff like that because you can get new perspectives on how to convey your rule set. If you're playing games before creating a game, you don't know if what you play is applicable to your design, and if you play games after ... well, then your project is already done and it's too late to change it.

    Play games while designing play.
  • That's also good advice! I dig.
  • edited February 2016
    Yes but not unilaterally. It probably helps to play more diverse games as a fledgling designer. Don't get me wrong though, the marginal knowledge gained is never 0 for each new game you play.

    I'm a big fan of vivisecting games during breaks in play.
  • There are many famous musicians - Sting and Thom Yorke among them - who refuse to listen to other peoples' music while they are composing a piece or an album.

    I dig that. Firstly, it's a guard against subconscious crossover, and something about conceptual purity, maybe even artistic ego^H^H^Hpride. But it's also about separating your "intake" phases from your "output" phases. Whole different kind of attention, energy, etc. Works for me.

    I think the most important thing when you are designing a game, is to actually play the heck out of the game you are designing. In terms of reading and playing other games in the same ballpark (i.e. you are working on a Steampunk Game, so you go out and play all the major Steam Punk RPGS), I can go either way there. Sometimes I like to shut myself out from all influence of similar games until I'm basically done designing, sometimes I like to see what others have done and find where I can add something new.

    But to me, the big thing is play what you are designing. Play it before you write anything down, develop it, play it while you are writing. Play it when you're done. Keep playing it. And play it in regular, long term campaigns (unless it is a micro game or something where long term use isn't an expectation). It is laudable to have a vision or overarching goal, but at the same time, people are going to play this thing and the purpose of it is to have a game they'll enjoy. I find the realities of what kinds of challenges and problems are actually encountered at the table usually trump whatever big ideas I had going in. I like my mechanics to reflect how I am actually playing the system myself with a live group. If it isn't happening fairly regularly in my own personal campaign for it, I don't really want it ending up in print.
  • edited February 2016
    This is the main reason why I've posted this: http://story-games.com/forums/discussion/20507/my-new-year-resolution-more-play-less-design

    You can indeed dry up as a designer if you don't play enough, I think.

    Some more thoughts for a game designer:

    1. In general, it is better to aim for variety rather than depth. Playing 10 one-shots of different systems is usually more beneficial than a loong campaign in one game system.

    2. In general, you'll probably learn more as a GM rather than as a player. GM thinking is closer to game design than player thinking.

    3. Play your games, play your games, play your games. You should be passionate about them, you should get your players excited about your games and the experience should be fun.

    4. It's not how many games you play, it's that you play with the mindset of a designer. Take apart each game's mechanics, reflect the gaming experience, think of possible hacks, think of another setting for the system, think of another system for the setting, try out differet hacks, cross-breed details from different games, take notes...

    5. Have an intimate group of roleplaying buddies who are open and available to try your newest ideas and are giving you honest & useful feedback.
  • I think something that pretty much everyone can agree on (and not even really related to the question posted by the OP, and certainly not intended by my initial introductory comment) is that we should play our own games. Playtesting is an integral part of the design process - you'd be hard pressed to convince me otherwise.

    What I was referring to was playing other games, ones in which I didn't have a direct hand in designing. I playtest my own stuff about four times a week, not to mention all of the play by post games I'm involved in. But, I rarely play other games - I read them, analyze them, pick them apart, but I maybe play an "outside" game once every few months, if that.

    So, to restate the intent of my initial comment and, I think, the intent of the OP:

    Do you think that playing other games, outside of your own design and playtesting process, is important for being a game designer? I'd say so. While there is certainly some creative cross-contamination that can happen, I'm of the mind that the more exposure you get in any field (game design or otherwise) the more likely you are to execute something well.
  • edited February 2016
    That's right bendutter; in my 26 years of experience as a comic artist, at first I went through the stage of copying other authors, then developing a mix of traits I liked from them and then turning those into my own. Today I still read and analyze other people's comics to learn even more from them, but also to know what's everyone's doing so I don't end up going in the same direction and doing something unoriginal.
  • Today I still read and analyze other people's comics to learn even more from them,
    But can you gain as much from it as from, for example, Understanding Comics? (I think you read that book, if I recall correctly?)
    ...but also to know what's everyone's doing so I don't end up going in the same direction and doing something unoriginal.
    I see what you're getting at, but this is a problem I see with "fantasy heartbreakers", or at least people's definition of it. A fantasy heartbreaker is only bad, in my book, if done badly, which most are. The amount of innovation put in those projects are diminishing.

    You can still do a cop series, like The Wire, and it will still be something people talk about.

    It's nitpicking of how you phrased it, I know, but I just wanted to throw it in there.

  • But can you gain as much from it as from, for example, Understanding Comics? (I think you read that book, if I recall correctly?)
    Yes, I did, though I learned a lot more reading Making Comics from Scott McCloud too, and finally got how to use some more of the stuff he wrote about in all his books by reading The Sculptor, his graphic novel. I'll give you that perhaps this is just me, I do got the theory but seeing it in practice reveals a lot more to me about how to apply it. I wouldn't be able to say how much people in the RPG field would do the opposite better, learn first the basics through theory books and then practice until mastering game design. Not that there isn't any people like this, but perhaps there should be more.

    I see what you're getting at, but this is a problem I see with "fantasy heartbreakers", or at least people's definition of it. A fantasy heartbreaker is only bad, in my book, if done badly, which most are. The amount of innovation put in those projects are diminishing.

    You can still do a cop series, like The Wire, and it will still be something people talk about.

    It's nitpicking of how you phrased it, I know, but I just wanted to throw it in there.
    It's ok, it's worth mentioning. It happens in the field of comics everywhere too. Here in my country a lot of newcomers plagiarize concepts, graphic style, characters and/or scenes from whatever commercial popular stuff is out there. In U.S.A. I once received a propossal to draw a character whose description matched Ghostrider's. I couldn't believe it, and when I asked about the resemblance the dude said that "there was enough space for characters like these on the market". I politely declined the gig, but I was thankful we talked this through e-mails instead of face to face, otherwise seeing me rolling on the floor would have tipped the guy about my opinions on his "original character".

    I often refer this case and others to newcomers whenever I give classes about comics. And then I ask them to read and experience as many different things as possible, from comics to books, movies, theater, videogames and better yet, real life, to expand their mental library of reference material so readers don't notice the source of their creations.

    I dunno if we should/could apply this to game design to reduce the amount of/rise the quality of heartbreakers. I consider them a learning stage, though it'd work better if these games were way shorter (as it did for me a lot of finally put the words "the end" on a short comming) or if we should have more people reading theory games before designing anything, but it's a lot easier and people will find it more justifiable if we tell them to play a lot of games so they can learn from them.
  • Leo, next time I manage a game in Kent with Dana & Giles do you want to show up? It's likely to be Giles running a Deadlands hack for Middle Earth, or it could be anyone running the Implosion! Tabletop RPG.

    If your games are very simple mechanically, you may not learn a lot about the mechanical side of things from seeing them in playtest. On the other hand, if they are of even moderate complexity, you may be surprised how many curved balls the experience of actual play throws at you, and how many bogies you find, maybe bogies with easy fixes but bogies nonetheless. Even after tons of playtesting of Soul's Calling for instance, I was still learning about it throughout the campaign I ran in 2014-2015, not just about the a-reffing aspect (where it was really an eye-opener) but about all sorts of things. I ended up rewriting the fate subsystem twice in the course of the one campaign.

    Partly it's that running the game in actual situations that other people have contributed to and driven forces you to think things through much more rigorously, and makes you notice all sorts of edge cases that you may not have anticipated.

    As for breadth of ideas, and evaluation of how mechanics feed into play-speed, atmosphere etc., and seeing how to maximise the impact of people's soft skills in play, I would think that those are fertile areas to learn from play.

    Personally I would never dream of trying to sell a product as a commercial product without having played it or run it first; I would consider that unethical. And I would think it arrogant for someone to think they could design roleplaying games without ever having played or GMed them, or with minimal experience. Of course, there could be geniuses out there who are justly confident to that point, but if they opened their mouths to make that claim, nobody with common sense would take them at their word. On the other hand I don't think you need to play every day or every week or even necessarily every month to keep up your skills. But you (the impersonal you) would probably benefit from at least getting in some periods of intense playing / GMing experience. Ideally you should experience both GMing and playing, get your players' feedback when you GM, and get feedback from groups that you've not been part of too, but the most important part of that is GMing your own games. Playing other people's games is also a good thing to help broaden your perspectives and give you inspiration.
  • edited February 2016
    Hey Matt, good to see you here. Thanks for your comment. I've been trying to reply to all the comments for the last week - there's so much interesting stuff - but I've been ill so lack the requisite brain capacity. Will do so soon.
  • 3xJ3xJ
    edited February 2016
    I don't know - but i think people work, design and are inspired by very different arts. Someare inspired by playing, others mainly in the design process and the analysis of existing systems. Others fuse practices from other arts into their designs... But without playing at all, i think not only will you be a worse designer, Your joy and understanding of play at the table will fade.

    This is from personal experience. I have not played a roleplaying game i want to play for over half a year. My interest in the hobby is blanking out, so is my creativity, my ability to form coherent mechanics and finding the lumpley-care-space i want to insert into my games. Resentment and frustration bubbles up to the surface when i am near my (normally, verydear to me) friends whom i roleplayed with beforehand.

    I am not complaining - There is only one thing to do, take matters into ones own own hands: next week, i am doing one shots for some people some towns away, trying to introduce them to different indie-games.

    ---

    A side note: i think, if we game-designers, professionals as well as amateurs, took just a little time off our schedules and played games together, we could create very strong games.

    ---
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